NEW ORLEANS — The Denver Nuggets, with 23 games under their belts, are well into the second quarter of their 2017-18 season. Here’s what we know so far:
The Nuggets (13-10) entered play Tuesday fifth in the Western Conference, although only two of those victories have come against teams that currently occupy a playoff spot (New Orleans and Toronto). Naturally, both of those wins came at home, where Denver has dominated (10-2).
Individually, center Nikola Jokic remains — when healthy — on track as an emerging all-star, Gary Harris is still a reliable two-way player and Will Barton has become one of the best sixth men in the NBA. And maybe stockpiling big men was a good thing, as all-star power forward Paul Millsap is out for months after reconstructive wrist surgery and Jokic and Wilson Chandler have been banged up.
Here are five lingering questions facing the Nuggets, who have five games left on a six-game road trip.
1. How long will Denver need to survive without both star big men? Jokic went through some light jogging, jumping and other exercises this week, a positive sign that he could return from a sprained ankle on this road trip, as cautiously predicted by coach Michael Malone. The Nuggets badly need Jokic, who averages 15.5 points per game and leads the team in rebounding (10.6) and assists (4.2). The Nuggets could tumble significantly if Jokic is out for an extended period.
2. Can the Nuggets fix their road woes? Denver’s home/road differential is staggering. At home, Denver shares the ball much better, ranking third in the NBA in assists (26.8 per game), but it is 29th on the road (19.4). At home, it tightens up on defense, ranking a respectable 15th in the NBA in rating (103.3 points allowed per 100 possessions), but the team is 27th on the road (111.5). But the biggest differences, coaches and players admit, are intangibles such as energy and mentality, signs of a team that needs to mature.
3. Can the young point guard tandem become consistent? Second-year starter Jamal Murray and third-year backup Emmanuel Mudiay have been impressive at times. Murray scored a career-high 32 points against Orlando, then nearly matched it two games later, with 31 against New Orleans. The Nuggets probably don’t beat Oklahoma City without 21 points, five rebounds and seven assists from Mudiay. But both players have also been plagued by extended shooting slumps and turnovers. The Nuggets run much of their offense through Jokic but still need a steady hand at the point.
4. Can Denver clean up the turnovers? The Nuggets allowed only nine points off turnovers in Monday’s blowout loss to the Mavericks, but they’re still 29th, surrendering 20.9 points per game off turnovers. The young point guards shoulder a significant portion of the blame. But it has been a problem up and down the roster.
5. Who will step up as a leader? Some of the most candid comments of the early season came from backup big man Mason Plumlee, who called for internal leadership following a lopsided loss at Utah. Millsap was expected to fill that role as an understated-yet-respected presence in the locker room, in huddles and on the floor in crunch time. Malone has also been pleased with Jokic’s development here, although it’s still a work-in-progress. Harris and Barton are also leadership options because of their on-court impact and personalities, while veterans such as Richard Jefferson and Darrell Arthur are valuable mentors. The Nuggets have strong character guys capable of stepping up. But somebody needs to do it.